One size does not fit all, and the way forward will require social discipline and political leadership.
Policy making requires balance. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s like flying a plane, which requires the right touch of pitch and yaw. Too much of one or the other can crash the plane.
The Pandemic of 2020 will leave an indelible mark on the world. Mankind has faced such challenges before, some much more deadly than COVID-19. Indeed, each year we face the common flu, which averages 20,000 to 60,000 fatalities a year, with little more than a referral to the walk-in clinic for a vaccination shot.
This disease is different. It’s not the flu, and it attacks with fervor the elderly, the ill and those with co-morbidity. It’s a scary, fearful disease which can attack the respiratory system with swift vengeance, and it is this very fear which has now locked us into a near Salem-style response, that being of hysteria and panic. And yet only .05% of those who catch it require hospitalization.
Perhaps it’s a toxic combination of social media and the lockdown, which leaves us far too much time for Twitter and Facebook, but we have allowed our worst instincts to govern what should be our finest moment in dealing with a crisis for which there was ample warning.
A sophisticated democracy requires that we be able to conduct complex dialogue in the midst of social upheaval. Stephen Speronis, a wise professor who taught long ago at the University of Tampa, once told me that the most important book I could ever read was Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War”— a dense look at war between Sparta and Athens in a time of plague and great distress. What impressed me most from this reading was that the elected officials circa 400 BC engaged in deep and thoughtful dialogue with the citizenry to shape public policy.
Our war with COVID-19 requires nothing less than a deep and thoughtful dialogue if we are to beat this disease and, more important, handle future pandemics which will surely follow, perhaps coupled with a crippling cyber attack for good measure.
It also demands that as a world power and democracy we be able to handle challenging, if not wicked, societal issues, with a deftness that has been in short supply to date in our approach to COVID-19. Like flying a sophisticated jet airplane, it demands balance and steadiness.
We have allowed flawed epidemiological models to shape public policy and indeed looked to nations which have zigged and zagged from “Hug a Chinese Day” in Florence, Italy, on Feb. 1, coupled with absolutely no social distancing, to a rigid lock-down a month later, that now threaten to upend the global economic order.
Buried in the blizzard of fearful shutdowns and political one-upmanship can be found intelligent discourse and wise discerning policy form places like Japan, Sweden and even tiny Iceland whose population is the size of the City of Tampa. What appears to be emerging from their experience is that there is no one size fits all response, but rather a balance of complicated, but well-calibrated policy decisions which have allowed these nations to protect their citizens from ill health, albeit they are still suffering from the disease, but without crushing their economies. America must be able to figure this out. We cannot remain locked down indefinitely and most certainly cannot afford ad nauseam multi trillion dollar bailout packages each time we face disease.
So what do we do?
We accept that there is no one-size-fits-all policy and perhaps even no perfect solution. That what might work for New York City is certainly not what we need in Omaha, Neb. We also take a page from the Greeks and engage in full dialogue about just what it means to live in an age of pandemics. It will require enormous societal discipline and leadership capable of rising above the partisan fray. We managed to do this during the World War II. We can handle it today.
It will mean that as citizens we accept testing and tracking, coupled with distancing policies like the ones implemented in Sweden, that allow restaurants and businesses to remain open but encourage citizens to take responsibility for their actions and asks those over 70 to remain at home.
It might mean looking more carefully at Japan, to learn how a nation of 126 million with density found in our large urban core, quickly dons masks and other targeted and at times stricter measures, while only experiencing a fraction of our fatalities.
Even in Iceland, where they have not shut down, we can find ample nuggets of wisdom, from their massive level of testing to tracking, that might provide America with answers for how we can intelligently deal with this crisis and prepare for what will follow.
Our friends and adversaries are watching carefully to see how we manage this moment. It could be a shining opportunity for us to lift those left economically behind, the very people we now rely upon to drive our trucks and stock our shelves, with wages that can sustain a family. It certainly demonstrates the importance of technology hubs and the growing relevance of our great universities. But perhaps most important, it enables friend and foe to witness our ability to manage complex problems with a scalpel and not a club. To deftly manage this challenge through discourse and a reliance on the goodwill and ability of our citizens to be socially responsible.
The lockdowns must soon be lifted. What follows requires the skill of an airline pilot, who balance the enormous forces of energy and natures worst, from wind and rain to freezing sleet, to manage the inevitable waves of COVID-19 that we will face until a vaccination is ready. It will take discipline, and balance and steady judgement. It will not be without turbulence, but we are up to it.
We can fly this plane.
Mark Sharpe, April 10, 2020